Almonds go nuts for Soave wine

John H. Isacs
When simple sugars are turned into alcohol and hundreds of volatile flavor compounds are released, some wines actually smell and taste like almonds.
John H. Isacs

Are you nuts? Not if you read Shanghai Daily’s food feature article today on almonds. Prized as snacks and used in dishes around the world, these aristocratic nuts have an alluring history.

Almonds are, botanically speaking, a stone fruit and therefore related to cherries, plums and peaches. However, unlike their kindred pitted fruits they are prized for their seeds and not their fruit. Scientists believe mankind started eating almonds about 12,000 years ago when a single genetic mutation stymied a trees’ ability to make toxic compounds. Bitter almond trees are still poisonous while their mutated relatives yield nontoxic sweet almonds.

The first domestication of almond trees is disputed. Some claim man first started raising the trees in the Near East while others say the initial cultivation was in China. What we do know is that almonds have played a prominent role in history. The Romans believed they stimulated fertility and therefore threw them at newlyweds during wedding ceremonies, while the Bible tells the story of Aaron’s rod blossoming into almonds signifying divine approval. Almonds were also a favorite nourishment and treat of ancient traders as they traversed the challenging topography of the Silk Route.

Almonds first migrated to the New World in the sacs of Franciscan padres where they eventually found a new home on the west coast of North America. Today, the State of California produces 80 percent of the world’s almonds helping to make them the US’s largest specialty food export. This success is impressive, but what’s the relationship between almonds and wines, other than the simple fact that they’re delicious when enjoyed together.

Due to the magic of fermentation, when simple sugars are turned into alcohol and hundreds of volatile flavor compounds are released, some wines actually smell and taste like almonds. California may produce the majority of almonds but Italy makes the most wine that actually have almond aromas and flavors. Sensations of almonds are notable in Barolo red wines as well Sicilian Inzolia white wines, but my choice this week for an almond-delicious wines is Italy’s most iconic white wine.

Almonds go nuts for Soave wine
Ti Gong

Soave DOC

The red wines of Italy are internationally more famous and popular than their whites. The one exception may be the fabulously successful Pinot Grigio whites from Northern Italy. But are they the best white wines? I’d argue that as delightful as a fresh young Pinot Grigio may be, it’s the more historic Soave whites that deserve the honor of being called Italy’s best white wine. This is in part due to the intensity, complexity, length and age-worthiness of top Soaves and also in part due to the unique culture and history of the place.

One of the most charming and enchanting towns in Italy is Soave. The area is home to some of Italy’s most picturesque landscapes and breathtaking fortresses. A majestic Medieval castle fort lords over the historic town which in turn is surrounded by beautiful vineyards perched on rolling hills. Collectively it’s a paradise for sightseers, gourmets and wine lovers.

Wines have been made in and around Soave since pre-Roman times. Romans cherished the wines from Soave hillside vineyards as well as those from the sloping valleys of neighboring Valpolicella. In the Middle Ages, Popes would purchase wines from the region. The Renaissance was also a privileged time for winemakers in Soave as growing commerce opened new markets.

By the second half of the 20th century, Soave was firmly established as Italy’s most successful white wine, and in the early 1990s Soave was producing 6 million cases of wine. Unfortunately, much of the production was from quantity-driven cooperatives that made insipid wines from high-yield vineyards outside of the traditional Classico region. This overproduction hurt the Soave brand and many consumers turned to newly popular whites like Pinot Grigio or New World Sauvignon Blanc.

Then two decades ago a number of small family-owned wineries started emphasizing higher quality wines using grapes from the hillside vineyards of the Classico area. As a result, Soave gradually started to regain its historic position as Italy’s premier white wine. In 1968, the region gained DOC status and in 2002 a select number of DOCG Soave were produced. By law all Soave wines must be made with a minimum of 70 percent Garganega grapes, though many of the best wines are made exclusively of the grape. A maximum contribution of 30 percent Chardonnay and/or Trebbiano di Soave, better known as Verdicchio, is allowed.

Typical Soave wines offer lovely peach, honeydew melon, citrus and pear aromas, and flavors with hints of minerals and our beloved almonds. All good Soaves feature a solid acidic backbone that makes this one of the world’s most food-friendly wines. The majority of production are dry still white wines but a small amount of Soave Spumante sparkling wines and Recioto di Soave sweet wines are also produced.

Fine Soave DOC, Soave Classico DOC and Soave Classico Superiore DOCG wines can all be found, but a reliable way to pick a good Soave is to choose wines from top producers. Fortunately, in Shanghai you can find lovely Soave wines from Bertani, La Cappuccina, Gini, Pieropan and Ca’Rugate. Large companies like Tommasi, Allegrini, Masi and Sartori, better known for their Valpolicella red wines, also make fine examples. The best Soaves are quite age-worthy and I’ve had the privilege to taste some over 50 years old, but most commercially available Soaves are best consumed within five to six years of release. Save for a poor 2014 vintage all the Soave vintages over the past decade have been very good to excellent.

Where to buy in Shanghai

Italo, 2/F 291 Fumin Rd, 6027-9127

Bertani Soave DOC

Masi Levaries Soave Classico DOC

Pieropan Soave Classico DOC

Allegrini Soave Classico DOC

Tommasi Soave Classico DOC

Special Reports